Do Russia and the West underestimate the impact of the Turkey factor on their relations and global stability, in general?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, gestures as he speaks during luncheon in his honor in May, 2013, at the State Department in Washington. Photo: AP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called for closing the Turkish-Syrian border to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists. This statement came a week after the U.S.-Russia ceasefire deal made headlines and fueled new speculation about the future of Russian-Turkish relations, already severely affected by Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in late November.

Also read: "How Turkey has changed the way the US and Russia view each other"

Lavrov repeated claims that Ankara supports terrorists by providing them with weapons under the disguise of a humanitarian aid convoy and putting vocal opponents into jail for revealing such information. However, Turkey sees these accusations as inherently biased and doesn’t take them seriously. Even though it just looks like mere political rhetoric and mutual finger pointing, it doesn’t bring stability to the region. Instead, it spurs further tensions amidst constant talks about a hypothetical military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara.

The very fact of such speculation is not a good sign, given that experts agree that the odds of a full-fledged war are gradually increasing, no matter how rigorously politicians try to prevent it. Today the world might underestimate the Turkey factor in Russia-West relations and its implications for global stability, as it was probably the case during the onset of the Ukraine crisis, before the Euromaidan protests turned into a civil war in the country.   

Without a solid policy toward Turkey, Washington seems to be straddling between increasing cooperation with Russia over Syria and supporting Turkey as a NATO member in its hypothetical military confrontation with Moscow.

This leads to another problem: The less certain Washington is toward Turkey, the more unpredictable and explosive the situation becomes. The prospect of a confrontation between Russia and Turkey and, thus, a wider conflict between Russia and NATO is not high, but no longer seems to be impossible.

“The U.S. is a NATO treaty ally of Turkey, and is committed to defend it in case of a clash with Russia,” Robert Freedman, visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science, told Russia Direct. “However, the U.S. is less than happy with Turkish behavior. Not only has [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan become an Islamic autocrat, but also his attacks on Syrian Kurds go counter to U.S. policy, which supports the Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Given the current ceasefire, shaky as it is, I don’t see Turkey invading Syria, but Erdogan is unpredictable.”

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department, echoes Freedman.

“The U.S. is firmly Turkey's ally but also has a tortured relationship with President Erdogan and no coherent cooperation plan with Ankara for handling the Syria crisis,” he told Russia Direct. “As such, things could get worse on all fronts before they get better. They certainly will not be easy in any aspect.”

Likewise, Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University, argues that the Turkey factor “certainly complicates U.S.-Russia relations and highlights multiple dilemmas for Moscow and Washington.”

“The U.S. finds it useful to cooperate with Russia on bringing about a ceasefire in Syria both for humanitarian and strategic reasons (and Washington's options are narrowing in Syria) but it does not wish to undermine Turkey,” he told Russia Direct.

“Russia, for instance may want a ceasefire both to help safeguard the Syrian regime and to improve relations with the U.S. but would not wish President Erdogan to benefit in any conceivable way by possibly letting him have a freer hand in attacking Kurdish forces in Syria. All this makes the ceasefire more tenuous and volatile.”

Does the U.S. have a solid policy toward Turkey?

One of the challenges for the world’s security is not only the increasing confrontation between Russia and Turkey, but also the lack of certainty in the U.S. policy toward Turkey, as indicated by talks within the expert community.

The U.S. seems to be straddling between supporting Turkey as a NATO member and maintaining cooperation with Russia in the Middle East. At the same time, Washington cannot help expressing its indignation about Turkey’s policy.

“Because of Erdogan’s at least tacit support for ISIS initially, his opposition to the Syrian Kurds, his on-going conflict with Israel, as well as his turn to the right Islamically, the Obama Administration is less than happy with Erdogan now,” Freedman said.

At the same time, he points out that the U.S. still needs the use of Turkey’s Incirlik air-base to bomb ISIS targets. So, U.S. policy toward Turkey is primarily determined by its tactics in Syria.  

“U.S. policy toward Syria continues to be dominated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get more deeply involved in the conflict,” Freedman said. “Russian President Vladimir Putin knows this, and has been exploiting Obama’s reluctance to both solidify the position of the Assad regime, and to strengthen the Russian military and political position in Syria and in the Middle East as a whole. Turkey is not a central factor here."

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, on the slippery slope to direct confrontation"

Certainly, the Syrian factor complicates the problem of stability in the Middle East, as does the fact that U.S.-Turkey relations are not in the best shape. Arif Asalioglu, general director at the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation (MIRNaS), is very clear about this.

“For the last 50 years, Turkey had maintained good relations with the U.S. Turkey is a NATO member,” he said in an interview with Russia Direct. “But over the last three or four years, the attitude of the U.S. to Turkey has changed. Today, U.S.-Turkey relations are not what they had been before. This is a fact. It is possible to assume that Turkey’s relations with the U.S. could have improved after Turkey downed the Russian jet, but it did not happen. The opposite has happened. Today, U.S.-Turkey relations are even worse.”

Braun sees U.S. policy toward Turkey as “rather incoherent” in some key aspects.

“President Obama's originally close relations with Erdogan, which were based on the hope that the latter represented a democratic path via moderate Islam, largely dissipated under the Turkish leader's increasing domestic repression and Turkey's duplicitous behavior on refugees and ISIS,” he clarified. “Nonetheless, Mr. Obama needs to support Turkey in light of its NATO membership and as a gateway for refugees. Nonetheless, American disappointment in Erdogan is palpable.”

Turkey, Russia and the U.S. all view Syria very differently

In contrast, Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is less pessimistic in his assessment of U.S.-Russia-Turkey relations.

"I'm not sure there is a crisis between Russia and Turkey,” he told Russia Direct during last week’s Valdai Club conference on the Middle East. “There is tension. They are two countries that had long trade and diplomatic relationships. They will have long trading and diplomatic relationships. They are in a moment of tension. I do not think the U.S. was trying to encourage it.”

Alterman argues that the U.S. is “certainly” concerned with the tension between Turkey and Russia spilling over, partly, because of the U.S.'s obligations to defend Turkey, but, according to him, Washington “is trying to quiet this down.”

Also read: "Is Syria on the path to peace or on the verge of a new war?"

The major challenge is that Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. see solutions in Syria very differently. Moreover, they are so far failing to come up with a compromise and, finally, they ended up “trying to pursue our own goals while counteracting the goals of the others.” And these disagreements, in turn, might be one of the obstacles for the U.S.-Russia ceasefire deal on Syria, Alterman concludes.     

“So, it highlights the importance of not just U.S.-Russia cooperation, but also the U.S., Russia and Turkey coordinating, understanding what we think is happening, and what we need to do to fix it,” Alternan said. So far, the coordination has not been successful at all. But it's important to be successful.”

However, Braun seems to be more pessimistic about the prospect of future cooperation between these stakeholders.

“Washington's very poor relations with Russia, particularly over Ukraine, and Russian military assertiveness globally, make it more difficult for the two nuclear powers to cooperate really effectively in the Middle East,” he argues. “In some ways, ironically, Russia is helping to push a reluctant America back into Turkey's arms (which in turn thereby could be emboldened to engage in risky and ultimately self-defeating actions) when larger global strategic interests should allow the two nuclear powers to transcend regional issues.”

According to Braun, the "Turkey factor" could hurt all three parties and prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.